NO MORE JUNK: Healthy food for the “Turkey Twizzler” generation

By: 

Lyndon Gee, Health and food writer and founder of Slow Food Westminster

Issue: 
Spring
Year of publication: 
2009

Against a background of growing concern about the poor quality of school meals and following Jamie Oliver’s Channel 4 programme, Jamie’s School Dinners, and his Feed Me Better campaign, which followed many years of action by the nutrition world, there is a plethora of activity around food in schools and a massive increase in research for children and intervention over what children are eating.

NEW INITIATIVES
Over the past few years, many projects have sprung up aiming to inform and re-educate the young. For example, in 2003 the Food Standards Agency in conjunction with the Focus on Food campaign, introduced the Cooking Bus, which travels the country in order to reach school children directly and convey healthy eating and food safety messages. In 2005, the School Food Trust (SFT) was set up amid the backlash of Jamie Oliver’s campaign, which publicly exposed school meals, shaming the Government into action. The SFT’s wide range of activities includes a reintroduction of school cookery lessons and a joint promotion with Disney’s High School Musical to encourage the uptake of school meals. Other SFT measures include the School FEAST (food excellence and skills training) initiative to create regional training centres for school cooks and the Million Meals campaign, which aims to achieve one million extra children eating school meals by 2010, as well as celebrity posters for schools to encourage healthy eating. It is also carrying out a wide range of surveys and research to assess exactly what kind of food children are eating.

The Soil Association is also actively working with primary and secondary schools, to promote food that is not only healthy but also local and organic. The excellent project Food for Life has set targets that school food should be a minimum of 30 per cent organic, 50 per cent locally sourced and 75 per cent prepared from natural unprocessed ingredients. Food for Life links schools with the local food communities and local producers in order to stimulate children’s interest in food and how it is produced. It aims to transform the food culture not only in schools but in their communities too.

Prince Charles is a keen supporter and recently presented the first Food for Life Awards for Schools. He said: “It is about rescuing today’s generation of over-industrialised children, about instilling in them a lifelong appreciation of food and the way it is produced and reconnecting them with nature.

CHANGING TIMES
Research is vital as provision of school food is a complex picture, with progress varying in each Local Authority (LA) area. Encouragingly, from a recent SFT report, half of the country’s LAs say that primary school menus are meeting nutrient standards and that, overall, progress is being made towards having healthier food for school children. New SFT food-based guidelines for schools were implemented in 2008 in primary schools, and will apply from this year in secondary schools (see box on page 22 for a summary of the guidelines). In practical terms, the guidelines are being realised in significant menu changes, including ‘lighter’ versions of old-fashioned favourites such as meat, mash and carrots or cheese pies.

The Food Standards Agency and the National Governors’ Association produced guidance for all the school governors on food policy in schools. This strategic document is now being updated to include the new standards and Ofsted is monitoring the way schools approach healthier eating as part of its regular inspections. Even when good food is provided, children may not choose to eat very healthily. Take-up of school dinners dropped for several years when the healthier meals were introduced, but there is some good news: the 2008 SFT survey of 104 schools shows that an uptake of school meals in primaries is slightly higher at 43 per cent, up 1.7 per cent from 2006/7.13 In secondary schools, the take-up was virtually unchanged at 37.6 per cent (2006/7 37.7 per cent). These findings suggest that the downward trend in primary schools has started to reverse and is stabilising in secondary schools.

The picture is more worrying in nursery schools, however, where foods banned from primary and secondary schools are apparently still being served. A recent report by the Soil Association and Baby Organix makes dismal reading. Georgie Porgie Pudding & Pie found that crisps, chips and biscuits are still on the nursery menus. This is possible because the current legislation does not apply to any private nurseries (estimated to account for nine out of every 10 nurseries in the UK) and food standards are not monitored. There is currently a campaign to improve standards for nurseries, to make the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) responsible for nursery food and to include nurseries in the Government guidelines. To find out more, go to www.nurseryfood.org.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
School meals account for around 35 per cent of a child’s daily nutritional intake, according to Soil Association research, but as many as 50 per cent of children take in packed lunches and research shows that, while pupils eating packed lunches are more likely to consume fruit, they’re also more likely to eat crisps and confectionery. Peer pressure is often cited, but how and why does eating junk food appear to be ‘cool’ for kids and why are many children resistant to eating healthily? Which? research discovered that food marketing is making it rather difficult for parents to get their children to eat healthily. The Food Commission (an independent watchdog that campaigns for safer, healthier food) published a report in 2006 called Child Catchers that features the top 12 ‘dirty tricks’ used to target children. And as long ago as 2002, it was found that children choose advertised foods over other foods. Celebrity endorsement of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods, product placement in films, including those aimed at children, and the sponsorship of high-profile sporting events all influence young people. Sponsors for the 2012 Olympics include McDonald’s and Coca Cola – what message does this send to children about healthy eating or otherwise?

The annual spend for child-themed food and drink advertising was £61m across all media in 2007. The good news is that this was a drop by almost half from 2003, falling from £103m. So children are already seeing fewer TV ads for HFSS foods. Offset against smaller Government budgets that are promoting healthy eating, much more creativity is still needed to persuade children away from junk food. Some help may be at hand from television programmes such as LazyTown, where the main character, named Sportacus, encourages children to eat ‘sports candy’, which is fruit and vegetables.

 

Keywords: 
CHILDREN'S HEALTH, Schools, Children, Projects, Campaigns, Policy, Advertising, Healthy Eating
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